Misconceptions of Libertarians

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Just like most ideological groups, libertarians are tasked with correcting misconceptions and strawmen of their own views. Most of these misconceptions are created by those that intentionally promote misinformation and those that fail to understand the libertarian perspective. Regardless of the intent, these falsehoods are in need of correction. It’s necessary to start first by defining libertarianism in relation to other ideologies.

Are Libertarians Anarchists?

Most libertarians wouldn’t call themselves anarchists.

Ideologically, libertarians range from classical liberalism (like Ludwig von Mises) to anarcho-capitalism (like Murray Rothbard). Depending on who you ask, some libertarians would say that anarcho-capitalists are a second group closely related to libertarians, and that libertarianism only extends as far as minarchism. Anarcho-capitalists (ancaps) hold similar principles to other kinds of libertarians (usually applying them to the furthest extent), but to be a libertarian does not necessarily make you an ancap.

Are Libertarians Socialists?

The vast majority of libertarians would declare themselves strong opponents of socialism. And yet, there’s still a small sliver of the libertarian movement that refers to themselves as ‘libertarian socialists.’ This confusion has to do with the etymology of the term ‘libertarian,’ originally used by left-anarchists and mutualists as a label for their own range of ideologies. In the 1950s, the term was redefined to what it means today, due in part to a proposal by classical liberal Dean Russell, and later, most notably, by economist Murray Rothbard.

The oxymoronic nature of the term ‘libertarian socialist’ applies only when defining both terms based on modern-day usage. Those that self-identify with this label are using the old definition coined by Joseph Déjacque in the mid 19th-century.

The original definition of the term is rarely used in popular writing. It’s nearly guaranteed that anyone identifying with the term today (besides some left-anarchists) intends to convey the modern definition more associated with a love of capitalism, rather than a rejection of it.

Are Libertarians Conservatives?

Libertarians may share some common views with (mostly American) conservatives, but their ideologies are very different.

True constitutional conservatives in the U.S. seek to preserve the classical liberal values of the founding fathers, but the reasons why will vary.

Conservatives typically value the ideological roots of the United States based on traditionalism, nationalism, and patriotism. Libertarians value America’s ideological roots because of the ideas themselves, rather than their historical significance. Conservatives (especially today) support numerous government programs that most libertarians strongly oppose. Conservatives are also interventionist, another position that libertarians are on the opposite side of. Besides an overlap in support for most parts of the U.S. Constitution, conservatives and libertarians differ greatly in ideological values.

Are Objectivists Libertarians?

Objectivists and libertarians share a lot of common ground, but are two distinct philosophies. Ayn Rand often conversed with influential libertarians, including Read, Mises, Rothbard, and Block, though she had quite a few bad things to say about the libertarian movement. She accused them of stealing her ideas, and condemned the religious conservative and anarchist parts of the movement.

Present-day Objectivists are more friendly to libertarians, and vice-versa. They both share an admiration for laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, and small government, as well as a distaste for authoritarian collectivism. Some individuals on both sides will still declare the other as more of an opponent than an ally, but overall, the organizations and public figures dedicated to their respective moments will cooperate often.

Many libertarians today include Ayn Rand and her writing as an influence in their thinking. Brian Doherty includes Rand as one of five people that have most influenced the libertarian movement in his book, Radicals for Capitalism.

Are Classical Liberals Libertarians?

The resurgence of the term ‘classical liberal’ in the last decade has led to a significant number of former disaffected liberals and political centrists identifying as classical liberals, but not libertarians, muddying the link between these two terms. Libertarianism originated from classical liberal ideology, and credits liberals like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek as influences, and many libertarians today would call themselves classical liberals.

This leads to some confusion with definitions. Some disaffected liberals have since adopted popular labels like conservative, libertarian, or social democrat, while others, such as the liberalists, have coined a new term entirely. But still others primarily identify as a classical liberal. Like Objectivists, some classical liberals may align themselves with libertarians on certain overlapping issues, but will consider themselves ideologically separate.

Simply put, classical liberalism is a part of libertarianism, but not all classical liberals are libertarians. There are but a few small ideological differences between these two groups of classical liberals. Many classical liberals are not opposed to certain government programs so long as they are applied to everyone equally. Libertarians, meanwhile, tend to oppose most government programs, both out of principle and pragmatism based on economics (specifically the Austrian school).

These similar yet different ideologies have a lot to do with the infighting within the libertarian movement. Libertarianism, like so many political and religious ideologies, includes more specific ideologies within it (like classical liberalism, minarchism, and anarcho-capitalism) as well as related ideologies with much in common (like Objectivism). All of these groups share similar values, but the ideologies themselves are more nuanced.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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